For around 1,500 years, Anuradhapura was the capital of what is Sri Lanka today. This ancient city in the country’s North Central Province, not to be confused with the new city of the same name, is also where the recorded history of the country begins, going back to the 5th century BCE.
The period during which this city was in its prime – the ‘Age of Anuradhapura’ (437 BCE – 1017 CE) – was beyond doubt the Golden Age of Sri Lanka. The early centuries saw an agro-pastoral civilisation form and grow, and the kingdom was, according to the Mahavamsa, a 5th century CE Buddhist text from Sri Lanka, established by King Pandukabhaya (in the 5th century BCE). But it was during the reign of Devanampiya Tissa (307 to 267 BCE), a contemporary of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, that the city really came into its own.
Devanampiya Tissa was the ruler during whose reign Mahendra, the son of Ashoka, brought Buddhism with him to Sri Lanka in 260-250 BCE, after the Third Buddhist Council, according to Sri Lankan Buddhist text, the Dipavamsa (compiled 3rd century CE). Mahendra was followed soon after by his sister Sanghamitra, who brought with her from India copies of the Tripitakas (The Three Baskets of Wisdom, the most venerable texts of the Buddhist faith ascribed to the Buddha himself) and a sapling from the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya in Magadha (modern-day Bihar). Both Mahendra and Sanghamitra are all deeply venerated by Buddhists to this day.
Interestingly, the Mahavamsa (5th century CE) says that Devanampiya Tissa and Dhammasoka (Ashoka) were friends well before this event. The Mahavamsa goes on to say that Tissa sent Ashoka gifts and that Ashoka sent back gifts with the news that he had converted to Buddhism and also sent a plea asking Tissa to do the same, which he did. In fact, it is during his reign that Buddhism became the state religion and soon spread all over the island. Proof of this is the great Maha Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura – regarded as the oldest planted tree in the world. It is one of the most sacred Buddhist relics in Sri Lanka today.
The Rise of Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura was a great centre of trade and was well known for its agricultural surplus, thanks to a double crop of rice due to two monsoons. It was also very famous for its export of pearls and gem stones. Ceramics, wine, silks and perfumes were imported. Trade with the Chera, Pandya and Chola kingdoms in South India existed from the 3rd-4th century BCE as did trade with Magadha via Kalinga (Odisha) and Vanga (Bengal).
According to records, there was a permanent Greek settlement at Anuradhapura from the early centuries BCE. These Greeks were supposedly soldiers of Alexander. While this is not certain, we cannot deny that Onescritus of Astypalaea, a commander in Alexander’s fleet, knew about Sri Lanka and called it by its Greek name ‘Taprobane’.
We know of Graeco-Roman traders coming to Sri Lanka thanks to the work of Strabo (1st-century BCE-1st century CE) and Ptolemy (2nd century CE), who both called it Taprobane. This was a Greek corruption of ‘Tambapanni/Tamrapani’, the ancient Indian name of the island of Sri Lanka, known to us right from inscriptions of Ashoka.
By the 5th century CE, there was a permanent Persian settlement and by the 9th century CE, an Arab settlement. Pliny (the famous Roman historian), in his Natural History tells us of an embassy sent from Anuradhapura to the court of Emperor Claudius in the 1st century CE. The ceramics of the Parthians, Sassanians and Islamic dynasties are all found at Anuradhapura as are some Roman wares. There are also large numbers of Roman and Indo-Roman, possibly Pandyan, coins seen in the 5th century CE during the Second Pandyan Interregnum.
Numerous dynasties ruled from Anuradhapura from the 4th century BCE to the 11th century CE, making this 1,500-year period the longest ever for a single site to be used as a capital city in Sri Lanka and anywhere in South Asia. Many different dynasties ruled from here and the longest rule was by the Lambakanna Dynasty, which ruled from the 1st to the 5th century CE, and again from the 7th to the 11th century CE.
Although the city was the foremost urban centre and Urbs Prima in Sri Lanka, it was not ruled continuously by Sinhala dynasties. There was a Tamil/Chola interregnum in the late 3rd century BCE, when two Tamil chieftains defeated the Sinhala ruler Suratissa and established themselves as the rulers of Sri Lanka. Their names were Sena and Guttika and they ruled for 22 years, from 237 to 215 BCE. They were defeated by Asela, the successor of Suratissa, in 215 BCE.
Asela’s reign came to an end in 205 BCE, when a famous Early Chola prince called Ellara defeated him in battle and became the king of Sri Lanka. Apart from these Chola rulers, there were also two Pandyan interregnums of five and six kings, respectively, at the turn of the 2nd-1st century BCE, and again in the second quarter of the 5th century CE. Sadly, we know little about these kings.
The only time that Anuradhapura was not the capital of Sri Lanka was when Kashyapa I (a rival claimant to the Sinhala throne and a very erratic ruler) shifted his capital to Sigiriya at the end of the 5th century CE. After a gap of less than 20 years, the capital returned to Anuradhapura after the death of Kashyapa. Thus, there was an almost 1,500-year period when Sri Lanka was ruled from Anuradhapura. All this came to an end in 1017 CE, when the Cholas defeated the Sinhala kings and conquered most of Sri Lanka.
The Decline of Anuradhapura
In 993 CE, after consolidating his empire (which by now encompassed what the whole of modern day Kerala and Tamil Nadu and parts of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka), Raja Raja Chola sent his armies to conquer Sri Lanka. They were soon victorious and Raja Raja Chola included Northern Sri Lanka as part of his empire. He called the province ‘Mummudi-sola-Mandalam’ after himself. ‘Mummudi’ was one of the regnal epithets of Raja Raja Chola and it meant ‘One With Three Crowns’, i.e. the crowns of the Cheras, Pandyas and Sinhalas. He was succeeded by his son Rajendra I (in 1014 CE), who was perhaps the most aggressive of all the Chola emperors and the greatest expansionist. He launched an even more fierce assault into the heartland of Sri Lanka and Anuradhapura fell in 1017 CE.
The Sinhalese chronicle, the Mahavamsa, agrees with the dates. But a small portion in the south of the island, Ruhuna (South-Eastern Sri Lanka today), held out and was never fully consolidated by the Cholas. The Cholas shifted the capital city to Pollonaruva (which the Cholas called ‘Jananthamangalam’) and Anuradhapura was destroyed.
Pollonaruva is 104 km south-east of Anuradhapura and 225 km north-east of Colombo. It was in a more defensible position than Anuradhapura. Two Shaivaite temples built in the Chola style, still stand at Pollonaruva, a testament to the 53-year reign of the Cholas here.
Finally, Vijayabahu I, Sinhala royal scion in hiding, taking advantage of the Chola civil war in Southern India (1069-70), came out of Ruhuna and attacked and defeated the Cholas in 1070 CE and re-established the Sinhala rule of the island. Though Vijayabahu crowned himself at Anuradhapura, his capital was Pollonaruva and sadly Anuradhapura slowly disappeared from all but history and memory. Interestingly, there is an inscribed stele of Vijayabahu in the Tamil script at Pollonaruva.
The modern heritage precinct of Anuradhapura consists of wide roads with wide open expanses, many of which are covered in trees and gardens, Scattered among them at regular intervals over a large area are Buddhist monuments from the whole history of Anuradhapura.
At the height of its glory, Anuradhapura was at par with the ancient cities of Nineveh and Babylon (in West Asia) and was spread across 663 sq km. Visiting Anuradhapura today is like leafing through pages of the history of the longest-serving capital of the Sinhala Empire, and one of history's greatest cities.
The most important and imposing of the monuments here are the great dagobas (stupas) of Ruwanwelisaya and Jetavahana, the monasteries of Abhayagiri and Lankarama, the giant ponds of Kuttam Pokuna and Abhayagiri, the Isurumuniya Rock Temple, the Palace of Vijaya, the Statue of the Reclining Buddha and the Maha Bodhi Tree. Great Buddhist thinkers like Buddhaghosha taught and preached here. These surviving monuments were all built between the 4th century BCE and 4th century CE, but they were often enlarged and added to by later rulers.
Buddhaghosha was a translator and commentator of Buddhist literature and, according to legend, was born near Bodh Gaya in Magadha in the 5th century CE. He went to Sri Lanka to study a lost commentary on the Tripitakas.
The Ruwanwelisaya Stupa is associated with King Dutugamini (161-137 BCE), who wrested back the throne from the Tamil ruler Ellara (or Ellalan). Ellara was a wise and just king, and according to Sri Lankan chronicles, he was respected even by his most feared rival Dutugamini. After Ellara’s death in battle, Dutugamini raised the Dakshina Stupa of Anuradhapura at the site of Ellara’s cremation.
Dutugamini expanded the city of Anuradhapura and, as the crown in the jewel of his constructions, built the Ruwanwelisaya Stupa over the relics of the Buddha. It is 103 metres tall and has a circumference of 290 metres. This is a fabulous monument which has been restored in the last century to its former glory. It is very well maintained and lit up at night. It is one of the most important places of pilgrimage in Sri Lanka. Vast and imposing, it towers over the visitor in its majesty.
The Jetawanarama Stupa, which has not been restored to its former glory and has been maintained as it was after clearance and conservation, is next on the list of sites. It is by far the most imposing of all structures at Anuradhapura. The stupa/dagoba is a part of the Jetavahana monastery complex and, at the original height of 122 metres, this was the world’s tallest stupa and third-highest structure when it was built in the 3rd century CE by King Mahasena (273 - 301 CE) and finished by his son Maghavanna. The only man-made structures taller than this stupa were the two largest pyramids at Giza in Egypt.
It was named in memory of the second monastery donated to the Buddha by Ananthapindika outside the city of Shravasti in Uttar Pradesh. Around 93.3 million baked bricks were used to build this stupa. It is supposed to house a part of the sash/belt of the Buddha. Interestingly, a series of gold plates bearing upon them the Prajnaparamita Sutta (one of the most important Mahayana texts which talks about the personification of the Bodhisattva and deals with the personification of the perfection of wisdom) were found while repairing the stupa. The text is in Sanskrit but is written in the Sinhala script, pointing out that Mahayana Buddhism had deep roots in Sri Lanka and wasn't just something imported by travelling foreign monks as hitherto postulated.
There were a number of beautiful manmade water bodies at Anuradhapura, including three large lakes. Chief among these are the twin tanks of Kuttam Pokuna and the pond at the Abhayagiri Monastery and Stupa Complex. Abhayagiri was a major Theravada monastery complex and contained elaborate bathing ponds, balustrades, moonstones (chandrashila), viharas and the Abhayagiri dagoba.
The Theravada school is the oldest of the Buddhist schools of philosophy and follows the original teachings of the Buddha as seen in the Pali Canons of the Buddhist faith. It is older than the other two schools of Mahayana and Vajrayana. It is even today the dominant school in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
The Abhayagiri Vihara, which stood alongside the dagoba, once housed the great Tooth Relic of the Buddha, which is now enshrined at Kandy. Abhayagiri was visited by the Chinese monk Fa Hein (5th century CE), who wrote about the tooth relic. It was one of the greatest monastic complexes in Sri Lanka and enjoyed great royal patronage.
Fa Hien was a very well-known Chinese traveller who came to India in search of Buddhist texts and visited the court of Chandra Gupta II in the late 4th/early 5th century CE. On his way back home, he returned by sea via Sri Lanka. He says that Anuradhapura was a great centre for Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings in its later days.
Hiuen Tsang, the famous Chinese monk, writing in the 7th century CE, specifically calls the Abhayagiri monastery at Anuradhapura a centre for Mahayana teachings wherein interestingly Hinayana (Theravada) theology was also taught. Hiuen Tsang did not himself visit Sri Lanka but talked to many Buddhist monks at Bodh Gaya. The Abhayagiri monastery survived as a bastion of the Mahayana school till the resurrection of Theravadism by Parakramabahu (1153-1186 CE) in the12th century CE.
Anuradhapura is also home to a very interesting rock-cut sanctuary complex called Isurumuniya. This monastery comprises a rock-cut vihara and above it is a small stupa. There are a number of pools, one with carved elephants, and the complex is said to have been built by Devanampiya Tissa in the 3rd century BCE.
There are a number of beautiful sculptural images from Isurumuniya, which include an image of the royal family and one of the fabled ‘Isurumuniya Lovers’. It is carved in a style with heavy Gupta influence and is an image of two lovers which may represent Saliya, the son of Devanampiya Tissa, and his low-caste lover, Ashokamala, for whom he forsook the throne.
When the site was first visited, some time after it was rediscovered, around 1821, John Davy, British Army doctor, chemist and writer, described it as “...this city of Anurodgburro, so long the capital of Ceylon, is now a small mean village …” Today, the remains of Anuradhapura are mainly its dagobas that tower over the landscape, its many viharas, and traces of the ponds and other structures.
Most of the secular structures were lost in the rubble and archaeologists have had to slowly reconstruct the lives of the people of Anuradhapura by excavating the foundations of the site. Anuradhapura excavations have yielded a huge amount of data and were conducted over many decades. The most interesting finds here are sherds inscribed in Brahmi securely dateable to the 4th century BCE, making these some of the earliest-dated Brahmi records to date!
Anuradhapura has played a very important role in the history of India and Indian Buddhism as many of the lost Buddhist texts of India which hold very important data about early Southern India and the history of the early dynasties of northern, central and eastern India, were all safely preserved by the various monasteries and schools of Buddhism. India thus owes the city an important debt for helping preserve these priceless historical documents and also for yielding some of the earliest-ever examples of the Brahmi script.
Today, Anuradhapura is a very important centre of pilgrimage for Sri Lankan Buddhists and for Buddhists all over the world. It is also one of the great heritage tourism attractions of Sri Lanka and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.